05/25/2009 12:00AM

Sheepshead Bay clearest of cloudy sequence


ELMONT, N.Y. - As the mainstream media and casual fans hold their collective breath awaiting word of Rachel Alexandra's next move, Saturday is just another day at the office for dyed-in-the-wool horseplayers, who are thrilled to see the game get some positive ink for a change even as they move on to the next race.

There's pick four mania in the air in New York and Chicago. This will be the third installment of Belmont Park's $350,000 late pick four; and there is a $100,000 all-stakes pick four at Arlington Park.

On May 9, the late pick four at Belmont handled more than $471,000, and the $2 payoff was $221 for a trio of $5 favorites - including Belmont Stakes-bound Charitable Man in the Peter Pan - and a 5-1 third choice.

Last week the handle dipped to $359,646, with universal single Seattle Smooth ($2.50) extricated from traffic and along in the nick of time to win the Shuvee. Even with such a low-priced winner, the $2 payoff was $9,095. All you needed to do was surround the mortal lock with Good Prospect ($26.20), Monte Carlo ($24.40), and The Plot Thickens ($56).

Saturday's focal point is the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay for fillies and mares, the third leg of the pick four. As might be expected in a 1 3/8-mile turf route, foreign bloodlines make up the majority of the field. Five of the eight were bred either in Europe or South America, including 9-5 morning-line favorite Criticism.

A Darley Stable homebred, Criticism was a listed stakes winner in France as a 3-year-old, and began her U.S. career as a 4-year-old with two starts last fall, finishing second in the Athenia at a distance well short of her best, and returning three weeks later to win the 12-furlong Long Island from off the pace.

Criticism has been more of an early-pace type this season for Tom Albertrani (who saddled Sauvage to win the 2005 Sheepshead Bay), winning the Grade 3 The Very One and the Grade 2 La Prevoyante on the lead. Criticism's only defeat this season came in the Orchid, when she stalked Julia Tuttle's kamikaze-like fractions, went clear around the third turn, and understandably weakened through deep stretch.

The most viable alternative is Backseat Rhythm, who was making her first start of the year when third to Criticism at Gulfstream in The Very One, and returns to Belmont turf, where she is 3 for 3, including the Grade 1 Garden City. She got better last year when racing on a regular schedule, and should be tighter for this rematch after overcoming a slow pace to win the Hillsborough in the final stride, and running into Forever Together in a tough-trip Jenny Wiley.

The sequence kicks off with race 7, a field of 11 maiden 3-year-olds. It will be necessary to see the early betting before finalizing a play. The four experienced horses have all run reasonably well, and the new shooters include Istishaary, a $1 million baby; Colors Flying, the first runner out of champion Storm Flag Flying; and Action Plan, a Juddmonte Farms homebred with some good works.

The second and fourth legs are wide-open turf sprints scheduled for the Widener course, and they promise to test bettors' handicapping and ticket-making skills.

Arlington's pick four covers races 8-10, and is book-ended by a pair of grass races for 3-year-olds: the $200,000 American 1,000 Guineas for fillies, and the $150,000 Arlington Classic for males. In between are the $150,000 Arlington Matron and the $100,000 Hanshin Cup on Polytrack.

Note that Venetian Causeway, cross-entered in the Sheepshead Bay and Matron, remained in New York.

Five fillies in the American 1,000 Guineas are within 4 Beyer Figure points of each other, with Peach Brew an interesting-looking 12-1 on the morning line. She ran a new top figure first time out in three months, and three starts later got back to that level finishing third in the recent off-the-turf Double Delta - a pattern that may signal she's ready for further improvement.

The Matron's potential keys look to be Kiss With a Twist, coming off two improved races to begin her 5-year-old campaign, and Indescribable, who follows the identical schedule that led to her win in this race last year.

Coragil Cat will try to win his second straight Hanshin after returning from a layoff to win the Timeless Native three weeks ago. The same formula worked last year, but he won't be 11-1 this time.

The Arlington Classic shapes up as an interesting clash between Giant Oak, back to turf after a clear second in the Illinois Derby behind Musket Man, and Golden Mexico, who won his debut in Italy last year and beat Woodlawn winner Affirmatif at Keeneland in his U.S. unveiling for Christophe Clement, who has been red hot at Belmont.